Sinister Summer: Burnt Offerings (1976) Retrospective Review

A haunting, dreamlike supernatural horror film about a truly hangry house that was ahead of its time. This month’s retrospective review is on Dan Curtis’ only theatrical film,: 1976’s Burnt Offerings. While I have certainly heard and read good things about this film, I had not really made it a priority to watch. A priority in that I would spend the $4 on Amazon to rent it. But the night before writing this, I saw it show up as a featured Shudder offering. With a mediocre IMDb score, I wasn’t convinced to spend my evening watching the two-hour film; however, upon a Google search, I saw that Golden Age screen icon (“fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) Bette Davis was in a supporting role, as well as Burgess Meredith. Throw in leads Karen Black and Oliver Reed, and you have one stacked cast. But an opportunity to see those Bette Davis Eyes was what swung the pendulum in favor of selecting this more-or-less obscure 70s horror film.

Ben Rolf (Reed), his wife Marian (Black), and their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) visit a country manor up for rent for the summer. They are welcomed by weird siblings Roz Allardyce and Arnold Allardyce (Meredith) who offer the mansion for $900 for the whole summer. Ben is concerned with the upkeep of such a stately place, and the Allardyces state that the house will take care of itself as long as they show it love. The only condition to the siblings’ generous offer is that the Rolfs feed their mother that lives in a plush, cozy attic apartment three times a day by leaving a tray outside of her room. The Rolf family accepts the too-good-to-be-true offer, and move in right away with Ben’s vivacious, eccentric Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). Not long after moving in, Marian begins to become more and more obsessed with Ms. Allardyce and the house. Meanwhile, unsettling things begin happen to the Rolf family, including violent outbursts, and even an untimely death. Ben feels that something sinister is going on with the house, and urges his family to leave. But leaving the estate is not as easy as it seems.

It’s all too easy to see hues of The Shining, Poltergeist, and even The Haunting and The Skeleton Key in this film, but remember that Burnt Offerings came out four years before The Shining and six years before Poltergeist. So if the plot feels a little predictable at times, it’s not because William F Nolan’s screenplay borrowed heavily from those tentpole heavy-hitters, but because those two iconic films perhaps took a little inspiration from it. Where Curtis may have taken inspiration was from Carnival of Souls because it feels like there is a nod or two to that film. Curtis has pacing down to a science! He demonstrates command of the emotional and psychological journeys of the characters and audience. Those who watch this film without reading up on it will scarcely have the leisure to ask why the Rolf family isn’t more observant and curious about their grand dwelling. At the time this film was released, horror was increasingly concerned and even obsessed with supernatural villains and primal fears take that place in otherwise innocent settings, such as an innocent little girl in The Exorcist or an innocent palatial estate in Burnt Offerings. In the case of the latter, the supernatural monster/entity is the house itself, which manifests its sinister desires in very much the same way a vampire does. It’s romantic, alluring, feeding on and sustaining itself with violence and death. This monster is capable of menace, vengeance, outrage, and even murder.

Instead of a shaky handheld camera, promiscuous teens/college students, and poor pacing that lacks a true windup or never pays off at all, comes a film that was ahead of its time in haunted house storytelling. This film feels far more polished and meticulously executed than most present-day haunted house movies. You won’t find jump scares or haphazard pacing here; this film comes from a time when the slow burn was both the norm and it was strategically utilized to setup a brilliant, shocking payoff that is ultimately among the most effective and memorable horror film endings of all time. In terms of its alluring aesthetic, Burnt Offerings harkens back to the days of Gothic horror in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe and the first and second generation of Universal Pictures Horror. Particularly Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher feels heavily channeled in this otherworldly, unsettling horror film. The film location itself comes completely with a sordid past. The estate in the film is the Dunsmuir Estate in Oakland, CA, which was used in every scene according to Curtis (so sound stages). It was built by coal fortune heir Alexander Dunsmuir in 1899. Dunsmuir intended the house to be a wedding gift for his new bride; but in horror movie fashion, he didn’t get to live in it with her because he fell ill and died while on his honeymoon in New York City. His new bride returned to live in the house but died soon after in 1901. What better haunted house location than a location, which may be truly haunted?!?

Burnt Offerings was one of many horror films in the 1970s and early 1980s that commented on the rising negative societal effects of middle-class life, including viral consumerism and obsession with single-family-house ownership, the family is destroyed by a house they otherwise dreamed of. Furthermore, it also provides an exploration of the perceived breakdown of the nuclear family, following the civil rights and sexual revolution movements. Closely reading the major themes in Burnt Offerings leads me to posit the idea that perhaps the most effective way to critically analyze this film is to interpret it as a supernatural parable on the risks of being controlled by one’s possessions. That said, contrary to how the Biblical proverb is so often misquoted; money is NOT the root of all evil; it’s the LOVE OF money that is at the root of all evil. And here, we can replace money with possessions (more specifically, the obsession with possessions). This is shown through Marian’s obsession with the Allardyces estate and possessions therein, Ben’s sexual obsession with his wife (as an object to possess), and the house’s evil energy possessing and draining the family. Anyone who’s ever owned a car, a house, or any kind of property can relate to what this family is going through. We know it as viral consumerism, or the toxic desire to acquire material objects (in today’s language, we can include experiences), which can begin to dominate one’s life. Furthermore, we’ve all been there, experiencing that feeling that repairs to, taxes on, and upkeep of property (be it cars, houses, or anything really) can become a burden that is figuratively unbearable. Ostensibly, the property and experiences we sought to possess, in an ironic twist of fate, now possess us.

The horror of Burnt Offerings is portrayed as a manifestation of the family’s inner turmoil. We aren’t given much to go on, as far as the family’s backstory, but clearly the facade of a happy couple is merely a thin veneer covering a very unhappy marriage–one that is using this summer get-away as a means to rectify. Although not specified, Ben is likely a teacher or non-tenure track college professor because his family is there for the summer (I infer this because Marian encourages Ben to work on his doctorate, something I intend to do as soon as I land a full-time staff/faculty position at the university where I’ve taught part-time for over five years). The manifestation of the internal conflict is expressed through the atmosphere and external behavior of the characters, much in the same way we witness this in The Shining, but more effectively witnessed in Rosemary’s Baby. The screenplay by Nolan (and Curtis) grafts this familial dysfunction onto the haunted house conventions to create an eerie sense of tension, both supernaturally and psychologically. As we observe how the Rolf family interacts in public (in front of the Allardyces) and in private (in their vehicle in a Shining-like motif), it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the “right people,” the Allardyces seek for the house, are ones living under a pressure cooker of repressed animosity and barely controlled hostilities.

Lastly, but certainly not least are the overall performances! Everyone in Burnt Offerings delivers a stellar performance. Talk about an award-winning, powerhouse ensemble! From the leads to our supporting cast, you will be delighted at the top shelf quality of the actors and their respective characters. What I appreciate most about each performance is just how authentic they were, no matter if the actor was playing a lead or supporting character. Both Reed and Black completely sell audiences on the stages of the relationship between their two characters as they go from happy to toxic couple, and it all feels so incredibly genuine. Montgomery’s performance as their son is par for the course, but effective and believable enough in this story (albeit he sometimes acts a little older than a 12-year-old would act). Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart simultaneously convince audiences their characters are jolly, eccentric siblings–yet there is a nuance of something creepy underneath. But the performance you really want to know about is the incomparable Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth. You get it all: Davis’ trademark sassy personality, witty quips, independence, and her eyes! Yes, those Bette Davis eyes that are a hallmark of cinema. One of the most beautiful faces the silver screen has ever seen, and yet she was adamant that she look like her character should look. Therefore, you eventually get a haggard, makeup-less, decrepit old woman that is the complete 180º from how we commonly see Davis. She delivers a fantastic performance, and you will be left wondering why she didn’t do more horror films to rescue herself from TV movie hell in the latter part of her career, from the golden age until she passed away in 1989.

If you are a fan of 1970s horror, The Shining, Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Amityville Horror, I feel confident that you will enjoy this film. While it’s not a great horror film, it is a solidly good one that fans of the genre will likely appreciate. In retrospect, there is so much to unpack in this dreamlike, haunting gothic horror motion picture. Perhaps audiences at the time it was originally released weren’t ready for this methodical haunted house film.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer 2020 “Misery” Retrospective

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of this film??? Well, they should because this is one of the most unnerving horror movies of all time. In fact, each semester when I show my students the hobbling scene, they visibly cringe at that moment, and often remark that it was one of the most nightmarish scenes they’ve ever witnessed in a film. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, and playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While this role is little more than a cameo, very few icons of the screen could’ve commanded it as beautifully as she did for those few scenes. Not only is this a brilliantly written and directed horror film, but Bates captivated us with her outstanding performance as the terrifying Annie Wilkes. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that turns us into the prisoner of a disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Clearly, Reiner studied Alfred Hitchcock’s methods for shooting a thriller. Evidence of this tone is witnessed in the framing, character blocking, and lingering shots. In fact, I argue that if you were to replace Reiner’s name with Hitchcock’s, it would be easy to convince (non cinephile’s) that it was in fact directed by the Master of Suspense. Reiner provides audiences with one of the most iconic horror films from the 90s that holds up incredibly well. Even with the typewriter, the sheer terror that Caan’s character of Paul Sheldon felt as he was kept prisoner by his sadistic No.1 fan Annie Wilkes (Bates). One of the biggest differences between the book and movie is the famous and painful hobbling scene. The book depicts Annie chopping off one of Paul’s feet versus the crippling of the ankles in the movie. I feel this was a good choice because the sledgehammer scene is far more painful than the former. I mean, every time I see a sledgehammer, I am reminded of this scene even to this day. Misery takes a minimalistic approach to the American horror film at a time that it was about being bigger and better. This approach was contrary to the trends of the day in that it felt far more intimate than other horror film contemporaries. As such, Reiner’s Misery is also largely takes place in one location (only flanked by quick moments in others). The combination of truly appalling, gut wrenching, darkly humorous, and sadistically amusing nature of this film enables it to hold up incredibly well and boasts one of the single most horrific scenes in horror cinema history.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life, not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film, but it helps us to understand the depth and power of the story and characters. Both Sheldon and Wilkes have incredible chemistry because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

The plot of Misery works on multiple levels to generate the fear that it elicits from audiences. It’s a combination of exploring the effects of isolation on the mind and body, depicting various interpretations of captivity, and the overwhelming sense of dread that cruel intentions are lurking in the background of everything. And it’s not abstract feelings of isolation that Paul experiences, but he is literally isolated from the world due to being snowed in and downed phone lines. Despite being just outside of town, he may as well be on the moon. Without phone lines, Paul is cut off from anyone that is not Annie. Not only is Paul a prisoner of Annie’s house and his room (and eventually the bed specifically), but he is a psychological prisoner as well. He only has Annie to talk to, and he has to play her game or risk her violent mania. Failing to play her game, the role she would have him play, has grave consequences. And those grave consequences give way to the ominous sense of impending cruelty. Even before Annie completely loses it, Paul sees through the cracks in her homespun veneer, and what he sees terrifies him. I absolutely love Annie’s long drawn out monologue about the Kimberly Mines before she hobbles Paul. Paired with the creepy rendition of Moonlight Serenade, this scene plays out with methodic brilliance. The suspense of what is to come will make even the bravest crumble under the fear.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer 2020 “I know What You Did Last Summer” Retrospective

Keep your eyes on the road or else you may find yourself running from a meathook-handed serial killer. It’s been 24 years since I Know What You Did Last Summer convinced us to pay attention to the roadway at night after our July 4th celebrations; interestingly, this is consistently one of those 90s horror movies that is either loved or despised. Won’t find much middle ground here. Personally, this ranks highly for me when talking 90s horror. While this movie has not seen the legacy and timeless influence that SCREAM has, there is still a lot to like if you are a slasher fan or simply enjoy the excellent chemistry in our lead ensemble cast in this incredibly fun slasher. For instance, we would not have Scary Movie if it wasn’t for I Know and Scream, we may not have the Hash Slinging Slasher from Spongebob Square Pants. Sure, if you think too much about the plot, it falls apart, but isn’t that the case with many slashers? Everything from the twists and turns, to the suspense, to the red herrings, a murderer screaming “you’ve got no place to hide,” not to mention the classic horror score, deliver a movie that is fun to watch, highly entertaining, and even rewatchable.

Last summer, a group of four partying teenagers accidentally strike a fisherman in the middle of the road. But instead of alerting the police, they dump his body in the ocean to cover up their crime as they all go their separate ways after high school. This summer, one of the friends receives a letter confronting them with the crime—I know what you did last summer. While tracking down the author of the letter, one of the secret-sharing group of friends is ironically run over by a man with a meat hook. The terror only increases from there, as the killer with the hook continues to stalk the rest of the friends.

While many horror movies take place around Halloween, other holidays have their own share including Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine, and even the 4th of July, which brings us to day’s Sinister Summer selection! While I love to watch Jaws every July 4th, I also enjoy rewatching, the quintessential 90’s slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer. Written by Scream co-writer Kevin Williamson, directed by Jim Gillespie, starring a then-allstar cast including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Junior, and Ryan Phillippe. Despite the R-rating, the violence is quite minimal in this movie, and that’s what I want to highlight here. One of the most telltale elements of most 80s/90s slashers is the entertaining, explicit, and even campy gore! Surprisingly, you won’t find a prolific amount of gore and violence in I Know but the implied violence works very well to drive up the tension and suspense as we try to solve the mystery of the identity of the hook-handed slasher before all the friends meet their demise.

While some horror movies are just plain scary, this one provides audiences with a story that is worth investing time and interest. There’s nothing supernatural about the scares in this movie, there’s nothing particularly grotesque either, and the atmosphere is not inordinately creepy or ominous. The real horror in I Know is not the meat-hooked slasher, but the helplessness of our central characters. Moreover, each of them feels completely helpless as they desperately try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. It’s one part serial killer and one part mystery. There is a ticking timebomb plot device employed in this movie, which translates to a race against the clock at the night of the 4th of July approaches. One by one, the slasher dressed in a rainslicker and fishing hat is picking off our high school friends as the anniversary of the inciting incident comes to pass. Often this movie gets compared to Scream and found to be wanting; however, this is an unfair comparison because there isn’t any movie (especially from this decade) that will be as good as Scream. Some people forget that Williamson wrote both Scream and IKWYDLS. But if this movie is looked at of its own accord and not in comparison with the decade-defining Scream, then it is able to be recognized as the classic that it actually is.

Believe it or not, there is a hidden strength in the story that rarely gets talked about. It’s a great psycho-social commentary on perception as reality and the cognitive elopement of a young adult. Moreover, I Know’s real genius is in how it confronts each of the lead cast with questions that all of us ask ourselves. It functions very well as a study of every individual teen’s mental state. Just like the characters in the movie, we (the audience) are wondering exactly who can be trusted. The central themes in this movie center in and around concepts such as: if you make a mistake, you should own up to it or else it will grow to haunt you; you will never forget a grave mistake you made, and should instead confess it; and if you now the right then to do, then you should do it. In summary, each of these posited ideas can be traced back to varying degrees of self-centeredness. Knowing who to trust, self-centeredness, and whether to stand up and fight or flee are all ideas that are such a part of growing up during the transition from teenager to young adult. Fortunately, this movie does a brilliant job of exploring these ideas through the vessel of a slasher. Whether in this movie or in real life, if you do not address your past, it will most certainly come back to haunt you. There is also a clear message of not driving while intoxicated; again, something that some young people struggle with and most assuredly encounter or perhaps are tempted to do.

It really doesn’t get anymore 90s than this movie. And perhaps that contributes to why it is looked at with more disdain than with fondness. While Scream takes place in the mid-90s, Williamson’s script and Wes Craven’s direction give it a timelessness that works even 24 years later. From the costume designs to soundtrack to the teenage angst, there is so much mid-90s in this movie. And unfortunately, much of that does not hold up; however, this movie should be seen as a product of its time. I mean, if for no other reason, we ALL know what you did last summer because it’s all over your social media. No longer does that accusation hold much threat.

Before you dismiss all of the plot and design elements and dialogue as unable to transcend the decades, I want to highlight a few elements that do. One of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s lines about her boyfriend Ray delivered while they are on the beach at night, “we can’t all sit in a Village coffee house and ramble esoterically on a laptop” could have very well come from a more recent slasher movie. The movie’s even ahead of its time in regards to the present socio-political climate in which we find ourselves, [referring to the slasher’s weapon] “the hook is really a phallic symbol, ultimately castrated.” And who doesn’t love the flagship, quotable line of “what are you waiting for, huh, what are you waiting for???” This line worked great then, and continues to hold up almost as well as “do you like scary movies?” Williamson certainly knows how to pen a line of dialogue that completely defines the movie.

When on one hand, it should be easy to dismiss this movie as a Scream ripoff, the movie saves itself from being completely dismissed because it knew precisely what it was, and unapologetically rocked it.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer 2020 – SCREAM

“Do you like scary movies?” Master of horror Wes Craven redefined the boundaries of horror with what many argue is the definitive example of meta horror SCREAM. Although I argue in my Sinister Summer 2019 article that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first to explore the idea of meta horror, there is no doubt that SCREAM is the more popular and truly more meta film. One that not only comments on itself, but on the slasher genre specifically. With the recently greenlit SCR5AM sequel, I thought it would be fun to start out my Sinister Summer 2020 series with the OG! Scream is among my favorite horror properties because you can tell that Wes Craven simply loves the genre and finding new paths to original stories. There are plenty of reasons to love SCREAM. If, for no other reason, it boasts the most brilliant and shocking opening in–not only horror movies–but movies in general. Craven took what Hitch pioneered in Psycho, and amped up the speed at which a popular actress is killed. Whereas Marion Crane was killed off within the first act. Craven kills off American darling Drew Barrymore in the prologue of the film! Still to this day, the opening scene in SCREAM is still the most terrifying opening ever. By killing off Drew Barrymore at the beginning, this communicated to the audience that all bets are off. With the general public, let alone horror fans, becoming all too knowledgable of the rules of horror films thus possessing the ability to predict the outcome and plot turning points, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven crafted a horror film that changes the rules by using them as a plot device to completely deconstruct the American horror slasher film genre.

But more than a satirical horror film, this film is equally scary. Whereas Scary Movie (the original title to Scream) would do similar things but through parody, slapstick and dark comedy, SCREAM maintains a serious tone throughout the film and never falls into parody. This serious approach is one of the reasons why this innovative film performed incredibly well then and still holds up today. Highly entertaining! This film holds your attention from beginning to end through an incredibly well-developed plot, complex characters, and conflict driven by the actions of the characters. This plot is simple–brilliant–but simple. By relying upon the characters to carry the story, the movie contains more subtext and substance than many others. When you have a character-driven plot, you need solid actors to bring it to life. And all the performances by the principal characters are absolutely perfect for the film. Everyone is so committed to their respective characters. Like bookends, the ending and beginning answer one another.Just as shockingly intense the opening scene is, the climax of the film is surprisingly noteworthy as well, and threw audiences for a loop as it abandons more conventional endings.

As you may know, Drew Barrymore was offered the role of Sidney Prescott. And this was in the mid 90s at the height of Barrymore’s star power. By her taking on the role of the lead character, her name would draw in even more people than would already be excited to see another Craven horror film. After reading the script, Barrymore suggested that she play the role of the opening death. She predicted many people would believe she would survive until the end, and audiences would be shocked by her character’s early demise. And you now what, she was right AND made horror history! Placing Barrymore prominently on the front of the poster, the studio featured her heavily in the various promotional campaigns, leading audiences to believe that Barrymore was the lead in the film. This marketing technique, taken right from the Psycho handbook, reinforced the twists and turns that SCREAM would deliver throughout the film. After that opening scene, audiences knew that all bets were off and that no one–not even American darling Drew Barrymore was safe.

Not only was SCREAM a pivotal horror film that redefined the versatility of the genre, but Sidney stepped into the shoes of all the legendary final girls before her, and took the role in a new direction that cemented her in with the likes of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and others. Unlike other Craven final girls, she stands as the only one to survive a Wes Craven franchise. Yes, Nancy is brought back in New Nightmare but she is killed off in Dream Warriors. While the final girl conventions had been well-defined up to this point, Wes Craven used the character of Sidney as a conduit for the audience since the rules of slasher horror were all too cliche at this stage in the evolution of the American horror film.

Much like with past final girls, Sidney is resilient, resourceful, sensible, and has an uncanny survivor’s reflex that is so incredibly well developed that she can simultaneously manage life’s complications and death with demonstrable hyper-focus. Furthermore, Neve Campbell’s Sidney was a powerful character for women because she demonstrated strength amidst adversity and responsibility when faced with difficult decisions. However, Sidney is not always the “good girl.” One of the longtime tropes of a final girl is one whom is chaste, but Sidney has had sex with her boyfriend prior to her mother’s brutal murder; however, she chooses when and only when she is good and ready, and when she isn’t dealing with the demons of her past or the serial killer of the present. Much like in the vein of Nancy Thompson, Sidney’s ability to outwit and survive Ghostface is based upon her cunning, not how “good” she is. She is ready and willing it fight for her life, and will stop at nothing until she rescues herself. 

Prior to SCREAM, slashers rarely targeted a single victim. For example, Laurie Strode happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Halloween, the same can be said for Alice in Friday the 13th. Less so with Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy eventually targets Nancy because she discovers his vulnerability. Even different from how Nancy was eventually targeted, Sidney was the sole focus of Ghostface from the very beginning. This target on Sidney means that killing her is the singular focus of Ghostface; and like Sidney’s internal need to survive, Ghostface will stop at nothing until Sidney is dead. But because Ghostface (Billy and Stu) has a flare for the theatrical, he torments, manipulates, and singles her out until Sidney finally fights back in that climactic third act where she turns the tables on Ghostface by using his own tools and knowledge against him. From using his own voice modulator on strategically creepy phone calls to using his own costume to frighten him, Sidney makes intentional decisions that greatly effect the balance of power. While Ghostface holds significant power in the beginning, Sidney erodes that power and takes it for herself.  She proves that she has an even greater understanding of horror movies than Ghostface himself, or perhaps the versatility of the rules. Eventually audiences witness Last House on the Left levels of revenge. Interesting because Last House on the Left is Wes Craven’s breakout writing-directing project and redefined the genre with its sexploitation revenge plot.

While a lot of the attention paid to Sidney involves her relationship and confrontation with Ghostface, she is the conduit through which we explore the power dynamic in romantic relationships as well. And the fact that her boyfriend is also her tormenter, offers bountiful material to explore. In many ways, the relationship between Billy/Sidney and Ghostface/Sidney parallels one another. Ghostface wants to penetrate Sidney with his knife, but she refuses to give up on resisting; likewise, Billy desires to penetrate Sidney with his own weapon but she withholds until she has worked through her personal demons. Billy attempts to make Sidney feel guilty for not engaging in her “girlfriendly” duties, as a misogynist such as Billy would put it; likewise, Ghostface tries his best to make Sidney feel guilty for the death of her mother. These parallels are why Sidney defeating Billy/Ghostface is so important and meaningful. Not only does she kill the demons that are presently haunting her, this defeat also allows Sidney to finally close the book on the demons of her past trauma.

There is more to a great slasher that the final girl and villain; those elements alone do not a classic make. Although there were many fantastic horror films in the 1990s, I argue that SCREAM is THE decade defining horror film. Other significant contributions to 90s slasher horror are I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, and The Faculty. Because of how well it holds up, it’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly twenty-five years since SCREAM began terrifying audiences around the globe. With witty dialogue, twisted plot lines, and pop culture references, SCREAM has earned its tenure amongst other classic horror motion pictures. The strength of SCREAM is in the screenplay by Kevin Williamson brought to life by the brilliant Craven direction. In any film, the screenplay is responsible for the very framework of the film. More than a map between the beginning and end, the screenplay dramatizes conflict and manifests ideas in either a linear or nonlinear storytelling structure. Think about it: a screenwriter is the very first person to see a movie–even before the director. He or she knows this cinematic story inside and out. And it’s the challenge of the screenwriter to take the cinematic vision from his or her mind, and translate it for the screen in an effective method for crafting an emotional and psychological connection between the audience and characters.

Screenplays are responsible for crafting a compelling narrative out of otherwise disconnected ideas, simple plots, or premises. This is where the very foundation of a motion picture lies. Without a well-crafted screenplay written by a writer who cares, the characters lack motivation, there is little cause & effect or meaning to the plot devices. The words of a thoughtful screenplay form visual statements that allow for the motion picture to be supported by subtext or purpose. One of the most important elements in a screenplay that so often gets overlooked is the task of creating a cast of extremely likable and realistic characters that the audience instantly becomes invested in. Kevin Williamson’s SCREAM screenplay offers audiences an exciting film with ample twists & turns, with an almost whodunit quality about it. As mentioned earlier in the article, SCREAM is one of the first horror films to approach horror from a meta perspective. The film takes a self-referential look at horror cinema by poking fun at the clichés for which the genre is well-known while simultaneously playing into almost every single one of them. But the film never patronizes its audience nor acts as if the audience is not in on the joke.

Often imitated, but never replicated, SCREAM is a pivotal horror film that pushed the boundaries of the horror genre and cinema at large. It represents the third time that Wes Craven was instrumental in redefining the genre: the first time was Last House on the Left then A Nightmare on Elm Street and lastly SCREAM. More than any other director, Craven has been the most pioneering in the genre. While he may have more box office flops than successes on his filmography, his films consistently sought to be trailblazers. In terms of studio history, he quite literally saved New Line Cinema from closing when he wrote and directed A Nightmare on Elm Street. And one could even say that Craven saved the slasher genre from extinction with SCREAM.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Friday the 13th” Celebrates 40 Years

Ch ch ch, ah ah ah. Celebrating 40 years of terror! The sleepaway summer camp experience was forever changed in the summer of 1980 when a slasher slaughtered a bunch of horny teenagers along the shores of Crystal Lake. Spanning more than three decades and a dozen feature films (too bad it’s not a baker’s dozen, wink), the Friday the 13th franchise made us never look at a hockey mask in the same way after Part 3. Releasing in 1980, Friday the 13th helped shape the modern slasher along side Texas Chainsaw Massacre and HalloweenA Nightmare on Elm Street would arrive in 1984. With his trademark hockey mask and machete, very few have lived to tell the tale of their encounter with one of the most terrifying slashers to ever appear on the silver screen. His body count is in the triple digits! From screen to screen, Jason has gone from the cineplex to your TV and computer by way of interactive media. Unlike the campy-ness of Freddy or more focussed kills of Michael, Jason is by far the scariest of his iconic counterparts.

Variety! That is what you get with Jason as opposed to Michael. Although Leatherface and Michael began the teen slasher genre, it was Jason who revolutionized it by his variety of gruesome methods of killing his victims. Whereas Freddy, much like a cat, loves to toy with his victims before going in for the final kill, Jason is a death machine who wastes no time in taking out all those who stand in his way. Motivated by his death brought about by teenage lifeguards making love while he drown in the murky waters of Crystal Lake, Jason typically murders those who are engaging in promiscuous activities. Sometimes, he will throw you for a loop by taking out someone in a wheelchair or another passerby. He is relentless. And before universe crossovers were commonplace between franchises, Freddy vs Jason got together for a terrifyingly good time in 2003, and then again at Halloween Horror Nights in 2016. While installments 2–12 feature the mask-wearing (burlap sack followed by goalie mask) machete yielding hulking man, the first film features Mrs. Pamela Voorhees (Jason’s mom) as the killer. It’s because of this that the original film feels much different than the others. But it certainly inspired the rest of the franchise. Think of the first one as Hitchcock’s Psycho in reverse,  precisely how Norman thought it was happening. A killer mother who’s overprotective of her son. Although it’s not a “Jason” movie, it did lay the groundwork for the rest of the series and the ending of the film provides the haunting moment that gave birth to the lore and legend of Jason that would carry through the remainder of the films.

Keeping the identity of the killer a secret, until the very end of the film, sets this movie apart from its predecessors Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Jaws. Furthermore, Friday the 13th adds more gore, kills, and gruesome makeup effects that look cheesy today but were quite shocking, back in ’80, to up the ante against the competition. The news of the gruesome effects was so intriguing that horror fans turned out in masses to see the film. By all accounts the characters are not terribly memorable–we certainly don’t have a Laurie Strode–and the killer’s identity isn’t revealed long enough to truly form an opinion; but it’s that jump scare/twist at the end that gave birth to a mammoth of a franchise that has lasted for over thirty years on big and little screens alike.

The perspective of the killer. One of the most memorable elements from the original Friday the 13th is being in the shoes of our mysterious killer. Unlike other slashers that preceded, the identity is kept secret as I mention in the previous paragraph. But it’s HOW this is accomplished that still fascinates horror fans today. We are the killer, or at least, we see through the eyes of the slasher. By Miller writing this element into the screenplay, we are forced to see things from the killer’s perspective in order to relate to and empathize with the killer. Brilliant, really. Although we sometimes assume an objective position just before or during a kill, we spend enough time as the killer’s eyes that we begin to identify with the killer. Not only can we identify with the killer, but because the main characters are teenagers, and slasher horror films are particularly of interest to teens, teenagers can easily relate to the characters in the movie. Essentially, we have a perfect combination of relatability in this film. Audience members are forced, at times, to view characters and events from the killer’s perspective but many in the audience can and will concurrently identify with the main characters. A great way to scare the audience is to place them in a situation that is close enough to reality that the prospect of something similar happening is terrifying.

First appearing in Part II but not fully taking his iconic form until Part III, Jason Voorhees has endured as one of the most recognizable horror villains who still terrifies people today. Furthermore, he has evolved to represent various thematic symbols that provide ample opportunity for analyses and close readings. While Freddy’s motivation is clear–revenge, plain and simple but still solid–Jason’s motivation(s) is a bit more complex. His mother’s motivation is clear; much like Freddy, her motivation is revenge against the camp and those who represent the horny teenagers who allowed her son Jason to drown while “getting it on,” so to speak. Jason, on the other hand, demonstrates motivations that must reach beyond classic revenge. For starters, we cannot ignore his physiological deformities that undoubtedly affected his emotional and psychological health, predisposing him to atypical or abnormal behavior prior to his untimely drowning. Judging from the misty flashbacks in the original Friday the 13th while Mrs. Voorhees is delivering rushed exposition, we can gather from Jason’s shadowed body that he is likely afflicted with hydrocephalus, a condition that traps excess fluid in the cranial cavity that compresses the brain causing a significant loss of neural activity (essentially, born with brain damage). Beyond the internal problems from hydrocephalus, this abnormally developed cranium often causes the eyes to be widely spaced and the subject typically has an enlarged skull.

Now that we have established his cognitive and physiological disabilities, we can explore just how the aforementioned plus the persistent taunting, teasing, and physical abuse from the other campers in 1957 all formed the perfect storm to motivate Jason to be the unstoppable slasher we know today. If we follow the lore of the later films, we are prevued to Jason being forcibly thrown into the lake where he eventually drown while the camp counselors were engaging in the horizontal mamba. There is sufficient evidence from the cannon of Jason films that he likely suffers from schizophrenia. As many of us are aware, this emotionally and cognitively debilitating disease causes sufferers to hallucinate imagery and voices that are controlling their mind. Jason’s ability to communicate with his mother and Mrs. Voorhees’ ability to communicate with her son, is also evidence that the schizophrenia was passed from mother to son. In real life, this disease can be hereditary. So, it is not a far reaching plausible idea to hypothesize that Mrs. Voorhees passed her schizophrenia on to Jason. But unlike mother, Jason suffered from additional disabilities that increased the intensity of the cognitive disease.

Formerly known as multiple personality syndrome, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is another affliction that Jason demonstrates through his abnormal behavior. DID is a severe psychological disorder that fragments an individual’s personality into two or more distinct personalities (or identities) coexisting, switching from one to another. Think of it as two or more people inhabiting the same body. Although one can be predisposed to DID, as Jason likely was, this disorder is often brought on by repetitive childhood trauma (which Jason experienced). Perhaps sometimes “a cigar may only be a cigar” but in this case, a mask is more than a mask. The trademark hockey goalie mask! What is it? It’s a mechanism or tool that enables Jason to disconnect himself from the murders he commits. By wearing the mask, he figuratively dissociates himself from the gruesome murders. The wearing of the mask is a direct result of DID because the mind processes the mask as conduit through which to engage in abnormal behavior because the abnormal behavior cannot be reconciled against the true self. In a sense, the mask allows for active cognitive dissonance because the behavior is opposite of how the brain wants to process information or experiences. This dissociation with the violent behaviors, enables Jason to continue on his murderous campaigns without his conscience ever prompting him to question his choices. Without the mask, he is vulnerable and may even question what he is doing; but with the mask, he is a killing machine.

The setting of Friday the 13th is also something of note. Much like Hitchcock did with the privacy of one’s bathroom in Psycho, Miller set the events of the original at a summer camp in order to shock the mind because it’s an innocent place that is about to play host to something traumatic and uncanny. Kids and teenagers attend sleepaway summer camps every year. They are traditionally seen as places where you form platonic or romantic relationships with your fellow campers or counselors. They are places of innocence that get a violent treatment in this film. Unlike Psycho where we are not prevued to the violent past of the iconic location and thus proceed through the story with our guard down, we are immediately introduced to Camp Crystal Lake’s violent past between the opening scene and the townsfolk. So, we are primed to expect something macabre at the camp. This does one very important thing. The camp immediately possesses an eerie feel, a feeling of dread of what is about to happen. The once popular summer camp falls prey to something sinister that makes the grounds incredibly creepy. Loss of innocence can be read as a theme throughout the films because we have an innocent camp that is plunged into violence, camp counselors losing their virginity, or campers engaging in dangerous behaviors. When innocence is lost, that’s when the violence begins.

Violence and gore are commonplace today (perhaps to the detriment of horror films as it has become cliche), but back in 1980, most audiences were not expecting to see closeups of murderous acts, even after Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite the cheesy nature of the practical effects with blood bags and prosthetics, the violence in Friday the 13th was unexpected. In many ways, this film revolutionized the genre. But the F13 franchise didn’t start out with overstuffing itself with gore. The body count in the original is the least of the series, but it is certainly the favorite in the series by a moderately wide margin, according to my personal poll and other polls online. Therefore, we have to draw the conclusion that it’s not Jason’s kills or the gore that prompt audiences to like one over the other. If seeing Jason kill people was what audiences were looking for, then the original would not be the favorite. Now, don’t get me wrong, Jason has some pretty awesome kills and he’s fun to watch; however, don’t assume that it’s the kills or violence themselves that make a horror movie a favorite. Interestingly, the original is quite tame compared to the rest, but it’s still regarded as the crowd favorite.

If you follow the horror community on #FilmTwitter and #HorrorTwitter, you’ve likely heard of the fight over the rights to the Friday the 13th name between the original writer Victor Miller and Sean S. Cunningham. As to not complicate this story with the details, the long and short of it is the copyright on the Friday the 13th title is expiring in 2020, and according to “Mickey’s Law” (an unofficial name for what I am about to describe because it was started by the Walt Disney Company in order to continually retain the rights to Mickey), it is time for the rights to be renegotiated or the name and original plot fall into the public domain. That’s right. This iconic name Friday the 13th is on the verge of belonging to the public. Miller urges that he has the rights to the name because the title along with the story was his original concept. Cunningham argues that Miller’s screenplay was work-for-hire. Under work-for-hire, Cunningham retains the rights and is able to make decisions with it. This is a classic IP lawsuit. But one that has major implications. Essentially, Miller wants to be (and in my opinion, rightly so) compensated for using the names Friday the 13th and Jason in future films and interactive media. While he does not have the rights to Jason’s trademark look, he could own the name itself. This legal battle surfaced after the launch of the recent Friday the 13th video game, and caused the next installment in the long-running franchise to be put on hold. The decision will likely boil down to whether Miller was hired to write the original screenplay or he developed it himself then sold/optioned it to Cunningham.

It’s been 40 years since we were first introduced to Camp Crystal Lake, and the horror landscape was forever changed. Mrs. Voorhees and Jason have been terrifying audiences since before I was born, and will continue to cause you or your kids to think twice about going to summer camp. I think summer camp was made more fun because there is a little piece of you that thinks Jason could be lurking outside your cabin. I don’t always ch, ch, ch but when I do, I always ah, ah, ah.

Happy Friday the 13th!

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Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1